While begging occurs widely throughout Southeast Asia, we were struck by the prevalence of child begging in Siem Reap. Frankly, it caught us off guard.
Should we help out or abstain? What were the economics behind it and what potential social repercussions would we be compounding?
Being approached by a young child was alarming. She would hold your arm, look up at you with large brown eyes and say, “I no want your money, I am huuuuuungry.” Sure, she was small, as most Asian people are, but something was off. She didn’t look hungry.
I needed to research this a bit further. Here’s what I uncovered online.
Common Child Begging ‘Scams’
Kids are effective beggars because adults are more predisposed to giving children money. This encourages parents to put their children on the street, which is especially dangerous given that Southeast Asia is commonly acknowledged as a hotbed for human trafficking. It also encourages parents to pull kids from school and forces kids to roam the streets late at night as drunk bar patrons mill about.
The common consensus online is that travellers should never give money to child beggars. If they really are hungry, it’s better to purchase them a meal. That being said…
The Formula Scam
A child or a slender woman with an infant will approach a tourist and ask him to purchase infant formula. After the tourist does so, the formula is later sold back to the shop vendor who splits the profit with the beggar.
The Orphanage Scam
Some orphanages advertise that tourists are able to drop by and give children ‘much needed attention’. Take a moment to think about that: inviting strangers to play – possibly unsupervised – with children. Does that really make sense?
In some circumstances these children have real families but they are placed in an ‘orphanage’ because they can not financially support them. In other cases, the parents are working seasonal employment and entrust their kids’ care to a centre.
If you’re looking to volunteer with children in Cambodia, it’s imperative that you vet the organization. Watch out for ‘orphanage tourism’ that only exists to exploit the Western savior complex.
How We Dealt
Investigating the situation a little deeper helped Greg and I rein in our emotions. We certainly did not want to be complicit in children begging.
When I was able to see clearly, I was disgusted by the parents who subjected their kids to this. But mostly, I pitied that they were in a situation in which they felt they had to do it.
We stayed a week in Siem Reap and after a few days I realized I was seeing the same little girl night after night. It had to be around 2:00 a.m. and she was flitting amid drunk travellers asking for “fooooooooood.” I could see her parent on a nearby corner keeping a lazy eye on her.
One night I had had enough of it. I called her out for asking me for “fooooood” just the night before, patting her belly and telling her that she wasn’t hungry. Funny thing, she paid me little attention during the rest of our stay.
These beggars are incredibly bright kids with a great grasp of English, I can only hope their futures hold greater endeavors.
Kids Will be Kids
One day we realized the child beggars often knew how to play rock-paper-scissors. Instead of simply handing out cash when asked, we’d launch into a game, parting with small change each time we lost a round.
The Good News
You’ll find loads of kids selling bracelets, books and post cards in Siem Reap and in the area surrounding Angkor Wat. Yes, it’s disappointing, but there are also a few organizations actively doing good things for former child beggars.
There are many boutiques and cafes that explicitly employ teens who have gained skills at learning centres. They are trained in various services and their wares are sold in trendy shops. Joe To Go was just one of many such socially-minded cafes. You’ll find the service outstanding and we made a point of supporting these establishments.
The Bottom Line
Child beggars are a heartbreaking reality and at the end of the day it is sometimes hard not to think with your heart. There are many impoverished people in Cambodia and as a Canadian, how can you not feel that you’ve already won the Life Lottery simply by virtue of your citizenship? There is no social security nor pensions in Cambodia so I hope you will give back in some way, but do so with due diligence.